As a driving force behind not one but two of the most challenging experimental rock bands to ever emerge from the Bay Area, guitarist Trey Spruance has been blurring and shredding the boundaries between musical genres for approaching three decades. Teaming with fellow future mavericks Mike Patton and Trevor Dunn while still attending high school in Eureka to form Mr. Bungle, Spruance helped shape the anarchic, menacing mix of death metal, avant-garde jazz, ska, and funk eventually heard on the band's brilliant John Zorn-produced debut in 1991. The band ventured into even stranger territory with the complex songs heard on 1995's Disco Volante, ping-ponging wildly across styles in a style that echoed Zorn's chaotic Naked City ensemble.
By the time Mr. Bungle released the fractured avant-pop of final album California at the turn of the millennium (the band split in 2004), Spruance had already been exploring a heady collision of Middle Eastern tonalities, twanging surf-rock, and lush cinematic orchestrations as the leader of Secret Chiefs 3. Over the course of eight albums and numerous singles issued since founding the group in the mid-1990s, the guitarist has developed an intricate cosmology of seven "sub bands" playing in a variety of styles under the Secret Chiefs 3 rubric.
On the group's latest album, Book of Souls: Folio A, Spruance has produced some of his most beguiling recordings yet, including a version of Scott Walker's "La Chanson de Jacky" (itself an English take on a Jacques Brel tune) that reunites the musician with vocalist Patton. Ahead of Secret Chiefs headlining show at the Chapel this Saturday, Feb. 15, Spruance spoke with All Shook Down about his early influences, discovering horror soundtracks, and the possibility of Mr. Bungle getting back together.
Mr. Bungle was exploring pretty radical territory even when you and the other principles in the band were still teenagers. Your musical appetites must have branched off from the standard classic rock, punk, and metal at a fairly young age. What were your early inspirations that were outside of mainstream music?
We started as a death metal band. It was pretty much straight-up thrash/death metal in 1985. But even then, one of the tunes on our first demo was a ska song. Some of the earliest stuff that we did together as a band was playing a bunch of Camper Van Beethoven covers, barely knowing what the hell we were doing. So back then, we were not really a death metal band. I don't know if a death metal band would play these goofy ska songs.
I guess there are two answers to the question. When my dad would get really pissed off, he would storm into the living room and put on Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. I've always associated that with these fits of anger. There are parts of that piece that are like a storm of terror. It made a huge impression on me. So it was sort of like Slayer and Stravinsky came to occupy two different extremes I suppose in my young brain. Maybe it was the possibility of dissonance and chords from the classical tradition. Of course, it's completely different with Slayer, where it's really just barre chords played really fast.
There was some appeal the atonality had; something in common between the two things. I think it's the very intuitive atonality of raw, primitive death metal and the very well worked-out polytonality of Stravinsky. You started to realize there must be a way to combine these two things to create something even more terrifying [laughs].
I think in the early days, it was about creating something completely horrifying. But at the same time, we were also really kind of jokers. It wasn't like we were slitting our wrists doing this stuff. We were really just entertaining ourselves out of extreme alienation and boredom from where we lived. We pretty much just hung out with each other and spent all of our time writing songs and listening to new stuff.
Mike Patton worked at the local record store, so he had access. At the time, it was well before the Internet. He would take records home and open them and tape them onto cassettes and we would copy his cassette tapes of all these different kinds of music. After a while it was just pouring in and our musical horizons were expanding together. I think from a very early stage, we were listening to a lot of different stuff and kind of shoving it into our music in weird, awkward ways until we finally got a little bit better at that.
Did an interest in atonality that elicited that kind of emotional response lead you directly to soundtrack composers and people making music for horror films?
It's weird. It was a little more roundabout. I think that interest came well after I moved to San Francisco. As a young guy, I listened to John Carpenter soundtracks and that kind of stuff. But I wasn't into the Giallo horror [stylized Italian thrillers like those made by director Dario Argento] until much later. I followed more the modern classical stuff. I was studying [composer Gyorgy] Ligeti. I shouldn't say this, but I stole Ligeti score from the Humboldt State library. There's a lot going on in these scores and it takes a long time to understand what the hell is happening with a piece like Ligeti's Requiem.
Both Trevor and I were studying at the University [Humboldt State] up there. I was able to sort of write my own major, which was really nice because it gave me a lot of time to be in the library deconstructing scores. The soundtrack thing kind of came after all that.
Some of the shorter songs on the new album not credited to specific sub bands like "Nova IHVH" and "Post-Identity Hour (AMS World Newscorp)" have a cut-up quality. It's almost like a radio tuning across the sub bands, where you hear familiar notes from songs on the album amid a jumble of tones...
I think you put your finger on it pretty well with the radio dial analogy, because they are intended as radio spots with these themes. They are broadcast themes, so it could be television. There's a three or four note sequence that refers to whether it's ABC or WKRV. Those are kind of implicit in there.
With the seven-band thing, the function that was played on Book of Horizons by the Electromagnetic Azoth, one of the bands, was to receive motif material in seed form and then distribute it to the other bands. Sort of the way a crystal does when it refracts light into certain hues. The different hues would be the different bands, but the same motif is being refracted to in the special mode assigned to that band and the special sort of sensibility of that band.
So what's happening on this record is that, during these radio spots, those transmissions are coming into the bands, but there's interference between the Electromagnetic Azoth aspect and the Holy Vehm aspect. The light and shadow aspects are in a bit of a transmission combat. So the seed motifs are being shot out into the air a little bit more randomly than they were on Book of Horizons.
Last year, I asked Trevor Dunn about the possibility of Mr. Bungle playing again and he likened the idea to making out with an ex-girlfriend. I'm surprised no deep-pocketed festival has managed to entice you into a reunion yet, but was wondering about your thoughts on either getting the band back together or working with your former bandmates in a new, more long-term project?
We have gotten offers. It's funny, because there is this idea that the thing that would make it happen would be a really good offer. Nobody in the band is against getting money to do music [laughs], but the real question is - I think - one of pedigree. We made those records in a state of exultation. Everybody had their own separate ideas that we were bringing together. There was very much a general excitement about all of it. We were able to cultivate these collaborative pieces and everyone was working on shaping the thing together.
I wouldn't want to speak for Mike on this, but I think he looks at it in kind of a similar way. Unless we had that momentum pushing us - the artistic drive that was motivating us - unless that was there, we wouldn't want to do it. It would be a bad idea. You don't want to put a shitty gloss on something that stands so well against the shittiness of time.
What's hard about it is I am of the belief that we could do that again; much more so. There are plenty of skills that have been developed in the last 14 years. There are a lot of musical ideas and a lot of fluency with each band member now that's better than it was before. But, as you see, people in the band all look at it differently. You have to be synchronized if you're going to do something like that. The synchronization just hasn't quite happened yet.